THE FALL OF
Unlikely Alliance Enlisted
President for Tobacco War
By Ceci Connolly and John Mintz
With much of the White House machinery working overtime to manage the sex-and-perjury allegations engulfing President Clinton, Gore took it upon himself to revive the prospects for a broad new tobacco law.
Over the objections of some of the president's advisers, the vice president joined a group of Democrats on Feb. 11 to reiterate a simple message: Fighting tobacco is good policy, and good politics.
"I want to point out that the lay of the land is different now," he said, surrounded by lawmakers and a black children's choir imported for the photo opportunity. "Support for tough anti-tobacco measures crosses all lines of region, party and politics."
Worried the White House was losing interest in the battle against cigarette makers, the Democratic lawmakers were relieved to see Gore in the fight. In reality, he had been waging a behind-the-scenes crusade against the cigarette business long before many of them.
Three years earlier, Gore and two unlikely allies David A. Kessler and Dick Morris convinced Clinton that the time was right to take on the once-unbeatable tobacco industry. Relying on intermediaries and cryptic messages, the troika built the administration's case against cigarette makers, a case that helped hobble the industry and trigger the debate over legislative restrictions that is beginning in earnest on Capitol Hill this week.
At about the same time Gore was making his public case against tobacco at the Senate news conference last month, Kessler was busy running the Yale Medical School and disgraced pollster Morris was speculating in radio interviews about the sex life of the first lady. Kessler, the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, still advises policymakers on the proposed national tobacco policy, but unofficially. Morris, after his publicized liaison with a prostitute, is merely an observer.
But in 1995, it was Morris the brilliant, fidgety New Yorker, despised by the rest of the Clinton team who concluded that the politician willing to fight the increasingly unpopular industry would be handsomely rewarded at the polls. Kessler, armed with scientific evidence and bureaucratic know-how, crafted a tough new proposal for regulating cigarettes as a drug.
Yet of the three, only one man consistently had the ear of the president, according to interviews with an assortment of people involved in the tobacco debate. In private, sometimes emotional, lunches with Clinton, Gore described his long and conflicting connections to tobacco. Few issues can push the disciplined vice president to the edge of rage the way tobacco does, say those who have observed him, yet few offer such great payoffs for a calculating politician in the 1990s.
And that is what frightens cigarette makers and some in the White House today as they attempt to fashion a bipartisan agreement that gives the anti-smoking advocates the money and programs they need to curb youth smoking and the companies the lawsuit relief they desperately want.
When Gore joined congressional Democrats last month trumpeting aggressive anti-smoking legislation, cigarette executives shuddered.
"It was deja vu all over again," one lobbyist said with a grimace. Even some of Clinton's aides fear that Gore's personal vitriol clouds his ability to negotiate a reasonable compromise. But others see his strident anti-smoking rhetoric as the bargaining ploy of a veteran legislator staking out a negotiating position far from where he may ultimately end up.
One thing is certain. Alone, no member of the troika could have brought the powerful industry to its current weakened state. Together, Morris's political ambition, Gore's personal revenge and Kessler's desire for a crowning policy achievement combined to form a political tidal wave, its size and velocity drowning out the skeptics.
Morris's Reelection Plan
On June 21, 1995, President Clinton's political survival team gathered in his private, second-floor study for its weekly strategy session. In interviews, a half-dozen participants described that meeting and subsequent conversations to The Washington Post.
The Clinton-Gore team had hit its nadir the previous November when Republicans took control of Congress and the Democratic president was forced to declare his relevance. Polls showed he was at best tied with his likely presidential opponent, Robert J. Dole.
As they took their regular seats Clinton in a wing chair at one end, the others in a semicircle around a large coffee table bearing the presidential seal Dick Morris resumed his implausible pitch to take on Big Tobacco in the name of America's youth.
The regulatory details were secondary to Morris; it was all about politics. Cigarette makers were the perfect villain, he argued, and protecting children was a winner with the critical swing group of voters known as "soccer moms."
To the operatives in the room, Morris's idea was terrifying. No president Democrat or Republican had ever successfully taken on the wealthy tobacco lobby. When Clinton had tried to increase the tax on a pack of cigarettes by $2 to finance his plan for health care overhaul, the industry revolted by helping to defeat the bill and helping defeat southern Democratic congressmen.
We'll be hit by a well-financed, brutal counterassault, warned deputy chief of staff Erskine B. Bowles, a native of tobacco-rich North Carolina and one of Clinton's most trusted advisers.
Harold Ickes, the bluntly profane political veteran, agreed. "This is a second-term issue," he snarled. "Leave this thing alone."
But Morris had detected a long-term shift in American attitudes on smoking. He didn't have enough data to prove his thesis, but he had managed to whip together a five-state poll showing that even in the Tobacco Belt, voters overwhelmingly supported efforts to crack down on teenage smoking.
"It doesn't make a damn bit of difference in some of these states," Morris said, according to notes from the meeting. "This will help you carry Kentucky. This will help you in Tennessee. You're dead in North Carolina anyway, but this isn't what's going to kill you. And it'll have no impact in Georgia or Virginia."
Leon E. Panetta, the chief of staff who served 16 years in Congress, was astonished. "You're full of [expletive]. This cannot be true."
Panetta didn't know what he was up against.
Seated on a blue camelback sofa closest to Clinton was a man who carried the legislative and emotional battle scars of earlier tobacco wars. Al Gore knew what it was like to be double-crossed by an arrogant industry, and he knew what it was like to lose a loved one to cancer.
Beet red and shaking, he muttered: "They're killers, they're killers."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company